Well. What a nice, big lump of coal (kind of literally, considering the air I’ve been breathing) Santa left in my stocking this year.
In one way. In another way, this little bout of pneumonia, now well on the mend (thanks for all your well wishes in the comments), has taught me great lessons regarding the spontaneous kindness of the Mongolian people.
To wit: as my fever and other symptoms spiked into the zone labeled “Alarming,” my friend Daka dropped everything to bring me food, make tea, schlep up the 13 flights of stairs in my building (still not finished, lift use restricted) to feed The Mooj and Nita, bring me a copy of the UB Post, etc. Meanwhile, I asked another friend, Delgermaa, whether she knew a good doctor. She said, “I’ll call you back in ten minutes.” This she did, informing me that she and a doctor friend would arrive with a driver to get me at 9 the next morning.
This they did, whisking me off to the enormous and imaginatively titled Hospital #3. Doctor Amaraa marched us along endless Escheresque hallways and staircases until we were at the X-ray Room. It was locked, but she marched right off again and quickly returned, the X-ray Tech helplessly in tow. Now, by stroke of good fortune, just ten days ago Hospital #3 had acquired a spanking new, state-of-the-art X-ray machine from Korea. You could tell the x-ray crew was still a little giddy playing with it and they were happy enough to snap a bunch of shots of a foreign monk’s chest. Their giddiness soon gave way to scowls, however, as the printer spit out the pictures. I was shown the massive white-out of at the bottom of my left lung and informed this was called acute pneumonia. Don’t know why. Nothing about it seemed particularly cute to me. Nonetheless, it also dictated, said they, a hospital stay of at least ten days.
“Ten days?” I sputtered. “But I have to fly to Australia in six!”
“Fly?” they collectively gasped. “Out of the question.”
“No no,” I responded, “quite in the question. I got people who’ve worked very hard to put together a two-month tour. I’m flying on the 3rd. Your job is to make me well enough to do so.”
Much harrumphing, then off to see the lung specialist. He confirmed the acute pneumonia and then we discussed the terms of staying at Hospital #3. This part was weird and uncomfortable, haggling over medical care. Apparently, at first, my monk’s robes notwithstanding, I was categorized as “American and therefore stinking rich so charge exorbitantly.” This was met with serious chastisement by Delgermaa, who embodies the odd combination of international banking specialist and deeply devoted Buddhist, and a price more in line with Mongolian standards was proffered. Still a bit steep, though, and anyway, they were full at the moment. Then Dr. Amaraa had a bright idea and off we went.
Shortly we pulled up in front of a small building, the sign in front declaring it to be the Dald Zasal Emneleg – the Inner Healing Hospital. I liked the sound of that already. But there was no room at this inn, either. Does this daunt a Mongolian woman on a mission? No, it does not. Dr. Amaraa got directly on the horn with the director, a friend of hers, and insisted I be accommodated. Know what happened? Get this – the director said she’d put a bed in her office so I could have some privacy, and she’d do her work elsewhere in the building. Can you imagine? That’s what I mean about Mongols’ flexible minds and spontaneous kindness. And, in such cases, humility.
But my karma had not yet begun to exhaust. I told them I’d be back around 3 and went to the hotel where I was staying, there to release Delgermaa and Dr. Amaraa, with my profuse thanks, and be handed back to Daka. We packed up my stuff and I went to find an internet connection so I could let my wider world know what was going on. Turns out the Dream Hotel did have a place for me to jack in – in the illegal internet poker parlor they run to get by in the off season, I guess. It was faux-leather appointed like every sleazy lounge you’ve ever seen, and apparently one was not granted admittance unless one could prove that one was an enthusiastic chain smoker. Such was the revolting milieu in which I tapped out the previous post and various emails while attempting not to hack my lungs straight out of my body.
Then to my apartment where I simply collapsed for an hour, much to the uncomprehending delight of my snuggling kitties, who made it clear they really missed me.
Then out into the freezing streets. It was one of the coldest days so far, high around 0F, overcast, dry snow blasted into your face by gusts up to 30mph, but I had to resolve an endlessly irritating money saga. The Australian organizers were trying to wire cash for a plane ticket and it stubbornly refused to appear in my Mongolian account. My inquiries at Golomt Bank were met with smiling shrugs and medegui – dunno – my least favorite response. Finally some illumination from the Australian side – seems my Mongolian account was not set up to receive such exotic currency as the Australian dollar. Unbelievable. So they used good ol’ Western Union.
This worked, but not before waiting in line for one teller, only to be told once I was in front of her (and her gigantic Western Union sign) to go to the other teller. That teller squinted and tapped at her computer for a good 20 minutes, had me sign at least four forms and then handed the whole shebang to a third teller. He squinted and tapped and managed to produce four more forms for me to sign, before counting out the cash about a hundred times and finally handing it over. This succeeded in working my proverbial last nerve, and I muttered a stream of New Jersey-derived epithets that I suggested Daka leave untranslated. Zoos Bank: you’re inefficient, have cooties, and your mother dresses you funny, so I’m afraid I must withdraw my patronage now and in future (that’s for you, cuz).
Then to the travel agent, where, after a momentary disagreement over the price previously quoted, the guy got me my e-ticket about as quickly as could be expected and at least here I could sit down, so there was slightly less chance of passing out.
Done at last. We plunged out again into the bitter, waning afternoon to catch a cab to the hospital. Along with several dozen other Mongols trying to catch cabs, eyeing one another with undisguised hostility. It was hopeless. We hunched our shoulders and trudged down to the next parallel street. Equally hopeless. I mean, usually the second you stick out your hand, somebody stops to pick you up. Not that day. So Daka called a friend with a car and we ducked into the UB Deli for some hot tea. This was quite welcome. Between the fever sweats and the Siberian gale, I was just about frozen through. As we wrapped our hands around our hot mugs, I looked at Daka and said, “Welcome to my karmic world.” This made her laugh, though a little uneasily. Who could blame her?
Friend with car finally showed up and off we...crawled. UB rush hour is a total cluster-you-know-what anyway, but hurl in some snow and everybody frantically shopping before New Year’s parties, and it was colossally so. But around six it seems we’re just about there on the right road when we come upon a huge slush puddle, slow down, and stop. The ignition won’t catch no matter how much turning, getting out and pushing (which I sulkily abstained from), whatever. I finally get it and lean back on the headrest and start to laugh like an imbecile. We’ve run out of gas.
Buddhism teaches that there’s no need to get despondent in such situations. They’re simply the manifestation of karma created in previous lifetimes, and actually one can see them positively in the sense that once the episode is over, provided similar karma is not created, it’s over. I tried to maintain this view, with mixed success.
Turns out we were only a few hundred yards from the hospital and limped to the front. Upon entering, we were ushered into the Director’s office (whose name, in typical Mongol fashion, I still don’t know) and I immediately perked up. Behind this energetic, smiling woman was a large thangka of the Medicine Buddha, complete with a shelf on which were arrayed many traditional offerings. It was clear I was in Buddhist country, and the doctor’s cheerfulness was, um, contagious. She cheerfully announced I had a fever of 102 and that I’d better not be a baby, cuz I’d be receiving injections at all hours of the day and night while they wrestled my illness to the mat.
I, in turn, suggested I was a great big boy and could take it, and expressed my deep gratitude. OK, she replied, drop them britches and let’s start with the first shot. And so it began...
That’s about the energy and time I have for now. I’ll dispatch the thrilling conclusion from my swanky layover pad in Seoul in a couple days.